The Other Abraham


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This morning I would like to speak of the famous legislator from the State of Illinois, a man renowned for his engaging oratorical skills, who rose from humble origins. Perhaps he is best known for being on the cutting edge of race relations in America, breaking down traditional barriers, as well as from the beginning of his political career being opposed to a popular war on the grounds that “you can’t allow the President to invade a neighboring nation… whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” This would be the kind of man to lead America during a time of great peril. I am of course speaking of….Abraham Lincoln.

Gotcha!! It was President Polk’s war against Mexico that he opposed.

It is not surprising that both Barack Obama and John McCain try to lay claim to the legacy of this great American. Senator Obama announced his presidential race and later introduced his Vice Presidential choice on the steps of the Illinois State House, as did Lincoln before him. Senator McCain frequently invokes the idea that Republicans are the party of Lincoln.

But why speak of Abraham Lincoln today? This is not my typical High Holy Day sermon topic. As you will be hearing more this coming year, Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809. Thus it will be the 200th anniversary of his birth prompting reflection on the man and his pivotal role in American history. Earlier this year at the CCAR national convention of Reform Rabbis, I had the opportunity to hear presidential scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, discuss, and later I read, her book, “Team of Rivals” the story of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency as he competed with his political opponents and how once in office, melded these same men into the team, which led the country.

As Lincoln entered the White House, our country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. I do not believe divisions in America are as bad today, but still there are major issues that need to be addressed. We Jews are a people who learn from history, not limited to Jewish history. With Presidential and congressional elections approaching, the qualities that Abraham Lincoln exemplified throughout his life are attributes that we might like to see in those men and women, who seek to lead our country. On a more personal level, he possessed traits applicable to our own lives. Is that not one of the purposes of being here today, to reevaluate how we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs? Teachers come from many places.

Many of you are familiar with parts of Lincoln’s life story. His childhood was challenging as his mother died when he was 9 years old, so that his sister Sarah helped to raise him. She, too, later died at a young age during childbirth. He had a total of 12 months of formal education, since he needed to earn for the family, working on the river barges and famously splitting rails and building log cabins. Physically, he was tall and gangly, with sharp not necessarily attractive facial features.

Though judged by history as one of the greats, Lincoln endured numerous failures throughout his years. At one particularly low point early in his life, he suffered from a broken engagement, the collapse of one of his pet projects as a state legislator, and his dearest friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town. Clearly he was depressed and the friend was concerned lest Lincoln be suicidal. To relieve Speed’s worry, Lincoln confided that to that point in his life he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived, and that … to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”  (p. 99) He wanted his life to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Years later, following the Emancipation Proclamation he stated, “I believe that by this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.” (p. 501)

So who was Abraham Lincoln and what were some of his attributes that we might seek in our elected officials or find admirable and worthy of emulation for ourselves? In many ways he was an exemplar of the “middot- Jewish values” for quality living.

Though his formal education was limited, he was always learning. Reading was his window to the world of knowledge from classics to contemporary literature and philosophy, fiction and non-fiction. He understood that the science and technology provided great avenues for advancement of civilization, knowledge that became quite useful in the execution of the Civil War. As Jews we know that the person who continues to learn continues to grow.

The Talmud teaches that we should receive all people pleasantly. Lincoln knew this intuitively. Following his election it was the President’s role to screen potential job seekers within his administration, not just the Cabinet, but the myriad of other positions in government. Hour after hour he met with would-be office holders, yet with a positive demeanor. It prompted a journalist to report: “he is the very embodiment of good temper and affability. They (the seekers) will all concede that he has a kind word, an encouraging smile, a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed with his disposition.” (p. 281) Lincoln came into office with many doubters, winning many over simply with his warmth of personality, treating all people decently.

Torah teaches us to love others as we love ourselves. In other words a starting point in human relations is to be empathetic, to put ourselves in others’ positions, not to assume that we have the absolute high ground when it comes to differences of opinion.  Slavery was of course the great issue of his day and he was opposed to it. Still, unlike others, he did not demonize or castigate those with whom he differed. As a pragmatist he initially was willing to allow slavery to continue where it was, but opposed its spread into new territories as the country grew.

In framing his speeches against the spread of slavery he sought common ground with those with whom he differed. Reflecting on the founding principles of the country, he argued: “No man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” (p. 167) He recognized that slavery had been in existence for years and that the southern economic way of life was dependent upon it. Rather than demean southern slaveholders, he identified with them saying, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst us, they would not introduce it.” He chose empathy as a means to advance his position, saying: “To win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” (p. 168)

When the rabbis of the great academies debated points of law, they respectfully maintained the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim- these and these are the words of the living God.” While there was competition among the rabbis to win their points of law, they respected their opponents. The same was true with Lincoln. He refused to denigrate his opponents with negative campaigning. In fact he and Steven Douglas, with whom he debated and to whom he lost the senatorial election, were good friends.

The thrust of the Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” is to emphasize how Lincoln competed with William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates for the presidency, men who were very different from him. In truth they generally looked upon him contemptuously, as the unsophisticated, uneducated country bumpkin. Yet, when he formed his cabinet of the best men he could find, the first became Secretary of State, the second, Secretary of the Treasury and the third, Attorney General.

Earlier in Lincoln’s life he also met Edwin Stanton, a leading litigator of the time. Lincoln had been hired to argue the biggest case of his career in Ohio, spending hours preparing his brief. Stanton was later called into the case to lead the legal team and pompously opined about Lincoln: “Why did you bring that long armed ape here?… He does not know anything and can do you no good.” Lincoln was then dismissed from the case. As President he would appoint Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton came to respect and love the “long armed ape” more than any person outside his immediate family. (p. 175) His former rivals became his trusted counselors providing real wisdom, not serving as “yes” men. Our tradition teaches us to learn from all people and turn our enemies into friends.

Lincoln knew that life needed its lighter moments. He could spend hours listening to and telling stories. As serious as life could be, it requires moments of levity even in the darkest of times. Prior to revealing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, a document that would change the course of human events in America, he read from a light hearted story book. When Lincoln faced a reporter’s criticism of one of his most successful generals for drinking too much, he asked what kind of whiskey it was, so that he could send it to some of his other generals. When someone told him he was “two faced,” he responded, “if I had two, would I keep this one.”

Like the rabbis of old, he employed parables to make a point. On one occasion, following a series of highly critical newspaper articles lambasting his leadership, he responded with the following: “A traveler on the frontier found himself out of his reckoning one night in a most inhospitable region. A terrific thunderstorm came up to add to his trouble. He floundered along until his horse gave out. The lightning afforded him the only clue to his way, but the peals of thunder were frightful. One bolt, which seemed to crush the earth beneath him, brought him to his knees. By no means a praying man, his petition was short and to the point: “O Lord, if it’s all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise.” And this was long before blogs, internet and cable television.

Though Lincoln may not have known the word “teshuvah,” he certainly understood the concept. First he was one who readily acknowledged his own errors and was willing to learn from his mistakes. When the Union Army was routed at Bull Run at the beginning of the war, he accepted responsibility and went about ensuring that nothing similar would happen again. On a number of occasions he accepted the blame for blunders by his Cabinet members, even when he was not directly responsible. He realized that we are all responsible. Similar to the way we will recite “for the sin that WE have sinned on Yom Kippur, he discussed the sin of slavery for which all must share in his famous 2nd Inaugural address.

We all have moments of weakness. On some occasions when Lincoln gave in to his temper, he regularly followed up with sorrow and sincere apologies. He was wise enough to recognize that sometimes frustration with others could be best expressed by highly critical letters that never are sent.

And Lincoln had the ability to forgive. Many individuals during his lifetime acted against him. Some would say that he could be too forgiving, but mostly this attribute enabled him to stand out from others. Salmon Chase performed his role as Treasury Secretary admirably, arranging for the finance of the War, but he continued as a critical thorn in Lincoln’s side. Finally, when Lincoln could stand no more, he eased him from office, but shortly thereafter appointed him to the Supreme Court, prompting one of Lincoln’s aides to observe: “Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him.” (p. 680)

As the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln’s message became one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his own family, he invited his sister-in-law, whose husband fought and died for the South to come and live in the White House. He arranged for Robert E. Lee and all the southern soldiers to return to their homes with dignity. Rather than prolong the pain of war, he secretly allowed Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin to live out their days in exile, rather than face trials for treason. Sometimes forgiveness involves simply moving on after the pain.

When Lincoln first ran for office at the age of 23, he wrote to his possible constituents: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other ambition so great as that of truly being esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.” With the hindsight of the years, we can all agree that he was successful. But more than that, as we enter our new Jewish year, we can be inspired by his goal, instructed by his example and strive to emulate the qualities of the man who came to be known as “Father Abraham.”



This sermon was based upon and all page references are from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.






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